A letter written in 1943 in response to a request from the Committee of National Liberation in Algiers to outline the mood in France, which was under Nazi occupation at the time. It was first published in January by Le Figaro. Translated from the French.
I will briefly summarize the feelings of a French intellectual confronted by the current situation in this country. In all frankness, the most prevalent sentiment is anguish. I am convinced that the kind of war being waged in metropolitan France, one in which we all participate, could lead to the renewal of the French people just as easily as their downfall. This would not come about by grandiose means, but by the ordinary workings of history, which conscientious French people know all too well. An intellectual cannot turn a blind eye when a nation dies after the surrender of its elite (especially since there are only two kinds of elites, the elites of the people and the intelligentsia). During the bloodshed of 1914–18, we learned that the spirit of a nation could be weakened, mutilated, and killed, just as much as the bodies of her sons. In the absurdity of every war, there is at least the advantage of the absurd. Gunfire strikes at random, and luck is capricious. But in the kind of war we are waging, the best still rise to the occasion. They become the elect by risking their lives in combat. A nation might dissolve when its elite surrenders, but the elite can also be redefined as those individuals who speak from lived experience and keep the weight of this memory in their bones.
Our country’s best men understood this. They went to war to liberate France and to retain their right to freedom of expression. But this right to freedom of expression is contingent on the fact that they too could be killed. As was the case in 1919, it could soon happen that because of these casualties, the elite will be silenced. As was also the case in 1919, those who declare themselves to be survivors could replace them, even if they survived only by virtue of their cowardice.
If this pattern seems familiar, if it has repeatedly played out in the history of our nation, recognizing it again in these dire circumstances does not necessarily mean the present situation is fatal. People will be able to understand this. But the only chance we have at improving our fate is to act, organize, and stay vigilant to shorten the duration of this ordeal.
With this message I am obviously addressing you, the reader, and I cannot exaggerate the urgency of my request. The lives and actions of the best French citizens are now playing out in a race against the clock, in an effort waged every day by irreplaceable individuals who risk their lives for the future of the nation as well as that of Europe.
If I evoke our anguish, it is not simply because we all share this feeling. It is the condition authorizing me to say that in this urgent effort against the terrible destruction of the nation’s best men, we must remain attentive to the spirit and the imagination of those who live outside the national territory and still represent France. Anyone who has lived and thought about living knows that the sentiments of faith, passion, solidarity, and a clear vision of what one wants are inconstant. It is only natural that they come and go. But we hope that these slips are rare and that those who are not actively fighting remain in solidarity with those on the front lines. We make this plea not for sentimental reasons, but to reduce the hardships endured by the members of the Resistance, thereby ensuring the nation’s future. It must be stated that our anxieties are riddled with doubt. There is the occasional discrepancy between the Resistance and external military actions. We cannot evaluate military or diplomatic measures when we do not know the basis of these decisions, but it can be said in no uncertain terms that the call to arms for the expansion of the Resistance was made prematurely. Today, after more than a year, foreign military forces have failed to reinforce our efforts.
The second feeling is uncertainty. Today, the ideology of the Resistance is basically void. This can be attributed to the simple explanation that material tasks have taken precedence over thinking, but it is actually more complicated than that. Ideology cannot be separated from historical context, and the French people who can still find the time to think do so while ignoring the facts of an external problem that nevertheless concerns them.
No one can contest that since 1930, throughout remarkable political upheavals, we have been shaped by a strong desire for justice and freedom surpassing all other countries, past or present. It is in the name of these two ideals that we continue to think and to act. If I had wanted to come up with a doctrine (this is neither the time nor the place), it would take the form of this equilibrium between justice and freedom—an equilibrium that would of course be difficult to realize, but without which we would be nothing. Justice presumes the complete transformation of a self-evaluating economy and the total internal overhaul of a constitutional system that no longer needs reexamination.
On the other hand, in the balance between the constitution and the economy, freedom necessitates the fulfillment of the state’s promises to the individual, which can always be revised, moderated, and adapted.
These fundamental principles are only of interest in their application to actual lived experience. But these developments cannot be foretold here. It is clear that these principles form our attitude and the attitude of many French citizens. But what do events outside our country tell us about these demands? First of all, the events in North Africa continue to trouble us. The ideals of justice, visionary revolution, and the annihilation of the old regime have yet to take effect. Because of a host of unknown influences and circumstances, most of the old political leadership retains power, many of them by financial means (notably those in control of the Algerian press). But the least that one can say, and I will say it here straight, is that international political actors—in America, for example—have sent a clear message that they intend to ignore the heartfelt wishes of the French people. They want a political future that is too much like the past, which is something we could never accept. Under the pretext of freedom, justice has been set aside.
On the other hand, we are watching history run its course, and know nothing about the intentions of those in charge. It is obvious that the French people will have trouble endorsing an all-powerful state and the end of freedom; they are ready for a policy of fraternal understanding with Russia. Russia is in a unique position, the first in history, in its attempt to reconcile justice with freedom. This is admirable. The country temporarily prioritized justice over freedom. Today, Russia seems to promise the resolution of these two necessary conditions. If this comes to pass, it will be an occasion to celebrate. The country’s astonishing trial period, which has lasted twenty-five years, serves the future of all nations. But such historical lessons might be impossible to learn by proxy; they can be understood only if experienced firsthand. While we are at war and look toward its aftermath, we will therefore need to preserve this ideal of liberty—not to be confused with liberation—as an ideal that our entire country and our best men will have to reconcile with the requisites of social justice. We remain uncertain as to how to continue believing in this ideal of freedom, just as we do not know how to keep those in battle alive. We have engaged in a fight that we believe weakens the strongest forces of this country, and know that the resolution of justice and freedom has yet to be realized outside of France.
Anguish and uncertainty fill the air most French people breathe. It would be childish to believe that this position inevitably leads to despair. It does precisely the opposite. But again, those who intervene in the country’s destiny from outside should not overlook the confusion that often accompanies despair. They should know that these two feelings require the same solution: if we manage to believe in this ideal of freedom, along with its limitations and demands, our actions will be informed and sustained by such an ideal. In France, this is what we know from everyday experience. United by this hope, the French people on all four corners of the globe are the ones who will make this ideal of freedom mean something in concrete terms. Some of them must be saved. The only chance we have is through a parsimony that prizes human lives and energy: nothing should happen that does not serve an efficient end. One could say that an individual’s death does not count for much, and I imagine that most French soldiers have thought this over. But the systematic waste of healthy people simultaneously kills the vessels of the ideas that will ensure a country’s future. This must be avoided. Every day, every hour—in articles, broadcasts, meetings, announcements—we must deliver this message to those in power. The rest is up to us.